An original sound keeps evolving

Boston Globe, June 23, 2006

Calexico is coming home.

Since the late 1990s, the Tucson, Ariz., band has forged its own brand of music, a sometimes ramshackle, always exhilarating affair full of Mexican trumpets and plaintive country melodies. It has drawn inspiration, too, from traditional and pop music of Europe, where it frequently performs and enjoys an ardent following.

With “Garden Ruin,” the band’s newest album and its first in three years (the group is touring behind it now, stopping Wednesday at the Roxy), Calexico is taking stock and, to hear lead singer and guitarist Joey Burns speak of it, focusing on the concerns of home.

“The influences are not so much about other places,” Burns says on the phone from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. “It’s more about being at home, and picking up the headlines.”

Musically, “Garden Ruin” takes Calexico in a somewhat new direction. The songs are compact and highly crafted, and the trademark instrumental tracks are gone. The previously ubiquitous trumpets have retreated from all but a few songs.

It feels as if the band has peeled back the most obvious dare one say stereotypical layers of the Southwestern aesthetic. Underneath, it has bared the musical equivalent of a small archeological dig, in which each song expresses an aspect of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, from the Beatles and folk rock to jaunty pop or heavy distortion.

Burns admits to this willingly. In fact, he raises the topic himself.

“Fans who are into our spaghetti-western sound have been kind of stumped,” he says. “But we like to challenge ourselves, and hopefully they will relate to that. The Southwestern thing has been kind of our calling card. We thought, `Let’s redesign the calling card.’ “

Producer J.D. Foster had worked with the band members before, but never on an official Calexico album. “They came to me saying they wanted to change their sound, to maybe not be as lo-fi as before,” Foster says. “I’m not sure it’s such a gigantic change. It marks a place in time, as records do.”

The affable, low-key Burns is also quick to credit his bandmates, especially drummer John Convertino, and the influence of other musicians with whom Calexico, a group of compulsive collaborators, has recently played. They range from Neko Case to Iron & Wine to Yo La Tengo.

“It’s nice to meet people you can relate to both musically and personally,” he says. “It gives you inspiration to pick up the guitar and do something you don’t usually do. It challenges you to grow.”

Going on tour with other bands, he says, allowed Calexico to experiment with equipment. “It got us plugged into their amps, checking out different distortion pedals, and going `That’s cool.’ In the past we relied on the trumpets as our natural distortion pedals.”

The payoff is most obvious on the album’s final track, and also its longest, “All Systems Red,” which ends in a loud swirl of noise. “The guitars have the final say,” Burns says. “It ends in feedback, distortion, chaos. It felt good to unleash that.”

For all these developments, Burns’s claims of a new direction feel a teensy bit tactical, as if he wanted to emphasize that Calexico will not become a caricature, feeding desert hokiness to fans content not to dig any deeper. If so, it’s an understandable point.

But this is still Calexico, one of the most iconoclastic bands in the land and one that couldn’t shed its originality if it tried. Purists can rest assured that the Mexican, country, and European accents remain strong, if reorganized. Burns’s relaxed, narrative singing is as lyrical as ever.

It’s also, perhaps, newly trenchant. Calexico is not shy about its social values, but “Garden Ruin” is its most overtly politicized album, featuring both direct and stylized commentary on the state of the world and American policy.

On “Roka,” Calexico is joined by Spanish singer Amparo Sanchez to evoke the tragedy of immigrants stranded in the desert. Roberto Mendoza of Mexico’s Nortec Collective supplies sound effects. In personnel and theme, the song links Calexico with the “better world is possible” approach to globalization that Sanchez, Manu Chao, and other Europe-based musicians have been advocating.

“It talks about people risking their lives, and questioning what’s most valuable in your life,” Burns says. He tells the story of two Tucson relief workers who took ailing immigrants to the hospital and were charged, he says, with smuggling aliens.

“Deep Down” is outright bitter. “Deep down you know it’s evil/ You’ve always known,” Burns sings to an unnamed cynical ruler. He explains the band wrote the song at the start of the Iraq war. It was disturbing, he says, that “people were eager to jump in seeking revenge, and enjoying it.”

In case it wasn’t clear yet, this is a rather pessimistic album. Burns agrees partly.

“Definitely lyrically,” he says. “But musically there’s a lot of hope, a lot of positives. Contrast is really important for me. We felt like playing more pop, more major chords, pleasing to the ear. But times are getting tougher, with the economy and devastation from hurricanes and tsunamis. And as you get older as I’ve gotten older I feel that weight in a more intense and focused way.”